It’s 100% risk if it happens to you: why the mask slipped

Basic things on your risk management course: things with a very small chance of happening, and things which will make no difference if they do happen, are not things to worry about. We only need to be cautious when really unlikely events would also prove completely devastating.

That’s how the precautionary principle originated where it did — in ecology. Maybe there’s a really tiny chance of the whole world going wrong, but, the whole world going wrong is a seriously big deal. So on balance, we would take precautions — in this case.

Today, of course, politicians apply the precautionary principle to everything except green issues. Warning: tap may contain hot water. Warning: wet surface when it rains. Warning: hi vis. Warning: utter global collapse? Not so much.

If that is so it is because politicians have a natural desire to take the credit but avoid all the blame and in fact, no one wants to be the guy who did not do enough. Should something go wrong, we all want to say: we did what we could. That is the driving factor here. On the green issues, which are complex, it is easy to say we have done all we can. On the non-issues, and the nearly non-issues, massive regulation is a really easy win.

Now, we could go back to where we were fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, a minority warned about climate disasters. Today, we could listen to them. Fifty years ago, far greater latitude and agency was expected; far less regulation and special pleading. But for the fear of litigation, criminalisation and public obloquy, we might have gone back to that: a self-governing population, which didn’t sweat the small stuff. (Clearly I don’t include racism in the small stuff.)

Today, when fear of retribution is a major factor, it is self-evident that our process lacks integrity. Say a politician makes rules that he (or she) does not keep. The politician does not keep them, perhaps, because they know the rules were not really needed, or effective. They know they were not, because they know the reason they made those rules: doing all that they could. They made the rule whether it was effective or not.

If you know a rule can be relaxed on Monday, then you know it could be relaxed today, really. If masks in churches could be dropped on a Monday, they could have been dropped the day before — in time for going to church. As the person who’s made the rules and knows why you’ve made them, you could be expected to be more relaxed about rules that you know cast their net too wide. And there’s nothing new to see here.

What’s slightly new is that we had a change, and now we have a synthesis. The change was meant to come in 1997, and again in 2010. David Cameron talked about giving a leaning not a law. He had a ‘nudge unit’ to incentivise people to act in certain ways, rather than make them. The inspiration was self-consciously liberal. It was traced back to Burke. If we could find ways to nudge people towards virtuous behaviour, we could get the right results without closing down that space, which we call civil society, between the individual and the state — Burke’s ‘little platoons’.

The alternative was illiberal, and self-contradictory. It was making more laws, and more. Tony Blair had a ‘delivery unit’ (and made a packet of money giving lectures about it when he left No 10). Finally, there would be so many laws, and rules with the force of law, on so many detailed and debated issues, that a great many laws would no longer command consensual support. It was the proliferation of ‘laws’ that destroyed that respect for law which we call the rule of law. The short-term performance ‘delivery’ targets would distort and eviscerate professional judgment. Laws would not be followed and would need be enforced; and we would end with rule by decree, with inconsistent practice, with the police overwhelmed. If you found the right copper, that copper would make the call that was right for you.

If you like, the thesis was a drift towards authoritarianism, as politicians filled their productivity quotas using more and more laws. The antithesis was a public relations drive to manufacture opinion and direct the masses towards objectives for which consent was required. Now we have a synthesis. Laws in lockdown have been drafted which are as vague as leanings but have the force of decrees. They have been almost unenforceably ambitious, caused manipulable fear, and have prompted contempt or distrust. Police were asked to exercise the judgment that citizens were not allowed to make, and police did not prove to be good or consistent at doing that. Police were not, after all, judges, or legislators, but here they were being asked to do, on the spot, three jobs in one.

That space called civil society is a very important thing for Catholic doctrine, which just calls it society. People are older than the state, and it is the good which people really do have in common which matters: the state’s legitimacy depends on the people’s common good; the people don’t depend on the state’s say-so. Majorities may go up and down or change regarding just what is good and what isn’t, but what matters is: the genuine common good. It is part of that real good that people should be able to get on with their lives. They may even want laws, and may want to abrogate responsibility (if politicians) or to delegate responsibility (if citizens), but what is really good for human dignity is to give our own leaning, not another law, to our lives. That has to come from within, where the Kingdom of God is.

The precautionary principle, once it gets applied in the case of anything and everything and not just to the unique case of total world catastrophe, is the end of conscience, the informed conscience, formation and genuine freedom. It means risk aversion and the blame game, not risk management. Having said that, it will be no simple matter to roll back the effect of these two generations past in which the buck has been passed like a parcel and the idea of ‘formation’ thrown away.


Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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